City Council leaders are demanding higher pre-K wages — and it could lead to a budget showdown

New York City Council leaders say they will refuse to approve a city budget this month unless it raises salaries for community-based pre-K providers to match those of teachers at public schools.

It’s a shot in the arm for pay parity among the organizations who provide early childhood education to 60% of pre-schoolers in the program, compared to teachers at public schools. Providers advocating for change often point to starting salaries: new teachers in community organizations make about $42,000, compared with $59,000 in public schools.

While some council members have previously shown support for pre-K providers, the latest comments appear to set up a budget showdown over pay parity. Councilman Mark Treyger, who oversees the council’s education committee, said he and his 19 council colleagues on the budget negotiation team are in “unanimous” agreement, and they want the money added immediately, not phased in over multiple years.

“This is not just about posturing; this is about reality,” said Treyger in an interview with Chalkbeat on Friday. “I mean it when I say — and I don’t take these words lightly — that a number of these programs are on the brink of collapse if we do not resolve this issue once and for all.”

The early childhood education world in New York City has steadily beat the drum for years about equalizing pay between community and school-based providers of pre-K, even before Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out his lauded universal pre-K program, said Susan Stamler, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, which represents childcare providers. But the Council’s apparent support, coming as City Council negotiates with the mayor over his multi-billion-dollar budget proposal, could mark a turning point.

“It is new to have salary parity rise up to the level that it did, and it’s the first time that we have ever heard the council leadership talking about needing to have parity in the budget,” Stamler said.

Treyger announced the council’s firm stance during a rally of advocates for pay parity Thursday on steps of the education department. Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who also attended, told reporters that the politicians are “fighting” for equal salaries for all staff members, not just teachers.

But the push will likely be a tough one. In painting a grim picture for the city’s finances, de Blasio forced city agencies to propose cuts to their own budgets over the past several months. The Day Care Council, which represents providers that rely mostly on city funding, estimated it would cost $438 million over the next five years to bring community-based teachers on par with their public-school counterparts. But, as Johnson and Treyger pointed out, that figure does not include salaries for other staff, such as janitors. Treyger argues that the cost could be covered by using millions in income tax revenue, which the city has said still fell below projected numbers.

The pay parity issue has heated up for months as the city plans to shift oversight of the program to the education department and, because of that, has released new contracts for providers to bid on.  Those moves have raised concerns among providers about funding, and in particular, how salary disparities would be addressed.  

The matter almost led to a one-day strike last month but was cancelled at the 11th hour after the city agreed to begin meeting with union officials who represent thousands of private pre-K teachers. A City Hall official said conversations are ongoing.

And the issue has attracted the attention of other top city leaders, including Comptroller Scott Stringer and all five borough presidents, who have said the city should scrap its plans for taking over childcare programs and start over to address major funding concerns from providers.

The city recently made some significant changes to its contracts including to increase the minimum amount of funding that the operators will receive regardless of their student enrollment.

For the mayor’s part, City Hall officials said early childhood educators “play a critical role” in making Pre-K and 3-K function, but a spokesman did not say whether pay parity is expected to be resolved in the budget.

“We’ve listened to the concerns of community-based organizations and made changes to the early childhood RFPs in response, and we’ll continue to work together with these organizations to recruit, retain, and grow a talented workforce that serves New York City’s children and families,” wrote Will Baskin-Gerwitz, a spokesman for the mayor, in an email.